Health Break | Published October 24, 2005 | Written by Erica Auker

Now That's Sweet: The Health Benefits Of Chocolate

Chocolate. Is it a way to a woman's heart or just heart healthy? Trick-or-treaters who will be going door to door in search of sweets this week will be happy to know that recent studies are showing possible benefits from the oh-so-smooth and creamy treat of chocolate.

But, how much should one eat—considering the average American eats 12.2 pounds of chocolate per year—and is there a difference in the type of chocolate you indulge in?

We all know that fruits, vegetables and whole grains scream health benefits, but chocolate may also be a food to chalk up on the "healthy" list, specifically heart healthy.

Chocolate contains flavonoids—an antioxidant found in foods such as cranberries, apples, peanuts, onions, tea and red wine. Antioxidants provide protection to the body's cells from free radicals formed by innate processes like breathing and metabolism or environmental hazards like cigarette smoke and radiation.

If our bodies are deficient in appropriate levels of antioxidants, free radical damage develops and can lead to increases in LDL (bad) cholesterol and plaque formation on artery walls.

In a study measuring the effects of chocolate on cholesterol levels, one group of people was fed cocoa powder and dark chocolate, while a second group ate only cocoa butter. It was found that the participants who consumed the cocoa powder and dark chocolate had a rise in antioxidant activity and a decrease in LDL oxidation (which is linked to clogging of the arteries). Also, those who ate the combined cocoa powder and dark chocolate had an increase in the "good" cholesterol, HDL.

Along with improving cholesterol levels, some studies are finding chocolate helps reduce inflammation (a possible link to some forms of cancer), allows blood vessels to dilate, and possibly improves insulin function. Chocolate also contains other healthy vitamins and minerals including potassium and magnesium. Vitamins A, D, B1, B2 and E can also be found within the walls of the creamy treat.

So what does this mean for chocoholics everywhere? Is it OK to eat chocolate for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks in between? Well, not exactly. As with any food, chocolate is good in moderation, and some forms are better than others. The average chocolate bar—or 1.5-2.0 ounces of chocolate—has about 250 calories. Including this amount in one's diet on occasion shouldn't send you to the local department store searching for the next dress or pant size up.

The kind of chocolate one eats is also important. Consider these guidelines when reaching for your favorite piece of chocolate:

  • It takes many steps to minimize cocoa's naturally bitter taste during processing. The heart healthy flavonoids are responsible for that bitter taste. The more that chocolate is processed (fermentation, alkalizing, roasting), the greater amount of flavonoids lost.

  • Choose dark over other forms of chocolate. Dark chocolate maintains the greatest level of flavonoids compared to others. A minimum of 70 percent chocolate solids is best when it comes to health benefits.

  • For a product to be considered "chocolate," it must contain cocoa solids. Beware of "white chocolate," which contains no cocoa solids, and therefore will produce no heart healthy benefits.

What's the bottom line? The bulk of one's diet should still include whole grains, fruits and vegetables, but chocolate can be beneficial in moderate amounts. The darker, less refined the chocolate is, the better. And as always, variety and moderation are keys to a healthy diet.

Erica Auker is a registered dietitian and clinical dietitian at Mount Nittany Medical Center.